Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Representing Homes from the Victorians to the Moderns

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Domestic Interiors: Representing Homes from the Victorians to the Moderns, ed. Georgina Downey (Bloomsbury, London, 2013)

“Interiors” are the very things which all the younger men are industriously striving to paint. Restful ladies in dim or sunny rooms, in the midst of their own pretty furniture, and sometimes raptly nursing their own pretty babies – these, nowadays, are the ends of every young painter’s desire. Alas for the vanity of the endeavour!’ (Max Beerbohm, The Saturday Review, 18th April 1903)

As this comment suggests, the domestic interior was something of an obsession among Edwardian artists. Around the turn of the century, the bi-annual exhibitions of the New English Art Club were overwhelmed by a flood of paintings depicting (in the words of one disgruntled critic) ‘dingy London rooms with plain walls, highly polished furniture, a green door or dado, one figure or more, and frequently a green-shaded lamp’.[1] There were several key inspirations behind this cult, ranging from contemporary Scandinavian drama and the popularity of seventeenth-century Dutch art, to the ever-pressing desire of the artistic community to make their mark on interior design. That this ambition fell under the purview of the painter was never in doubt; not for a generation who had grown up with the names of Rossetti and Whistler ringing in their ears. In the early 1900s, the domestic interior was a battlefield containing several armies of competing tastes; a subject on which almost everyone had an opinion or a preference. It was much more than a matter of dados or lamps: the interior was the space in which identities were made. Continue reading

Review: Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art

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Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art: Selected Writings, edited by Nicholas Frankel (Rivendale Press, 2014)

Like many artists of his generation, the cultural contributions of Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) were wide and varied.  He was, variously, a book designer, wood-engraver, draughtsman, painter, sculptor, costume and set designer, jewellery designer, and talented typographer. He founded one press – The Vale Press, whose beautiful books are still greatly sought after – and two short-lived yet influential magazines, The Dial and The Pageant. The latter promoted not only his own work (and that of his partner, the artist Charles Shannon), but also that of relatively unknown British artists and writers such as ‘Michael Field’, Thomas Sturge Moore and Charles Conder.

Ricketts and Shannon were, in their own quiet way, a power couple; their extensive art collection ranged from Persian miniatures to Puvis de Chavannes, whilst their Chelsea – and, later, Richmond – house served as a meeting place for like-minded individuals, many of whom (like Roger Fry and Charles Holmes) would go on to assume positions of great responsibility in the British art world.  ‘The Vale is one of the few houses in London where one is never bored’ claimed Oscar Wilde, one of Ricketts’s most famous collaborators. Continue reading

Review: Aesthetic Lives

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Aesthetic Lives: ‘New Experiences, New Subjects of Poetry, New Forms of Art,’ eds. Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer (Hugh Wycombe: Rivendale Press, 2013); ISBN 978-1-904201-23-6); 217 pp.

We seem to know much about the Aesthetic movement of the 1870s-1890s: Wilde’s blue china, Pater’s hard gem-like flame, the “House Beautiful,” The Yellow Book, but “seem,” perhaps is the key word: this thoughtful collection, nicely produced by Rivendale Press, a leading independent publisher of research on the 1890s, takes us beyond the clichés and sheds light on the less-known aspects of the movement, its influences, collaborations, and intellectual, artistic, and social consequences.

Three sections comprise the volume: “Looking into Aestheticism, “Living Aesthetically: Fashioning the Interior, Designing the Self,” and “Representing Aestheticism.” The essays can be divided into three thematic categories, roughly corresponding to the three sections: Continue reading

Review: Modernist Magazines in Britain and Ireland, 1880-1955

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The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Volume One: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955, edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, Oxford University Press, 2013. £35.

The process of studying modernist magazines – or ‘little magazines’ as they are sometimes known – has changed significantly over the past ten or fifteen years. One no longer has to track such publications down in the dusty vaults of university libraries or public archives, or purchase expensive facsimiles. Most modernist magazines are now freely available online, either at the Modernist Journals Project, a co-venture between Brown University and the University of Tulsa, or at the more recent (and similarly titled) Modernist Magazines Project, based at the Universities of Sussex and De Montfort, and funded by the AHRC.

Such online resources are clearly invaluable, ensuring the future of exciting research in this field. Indeed, both of these websites continue to expand at a rapid pace, with new magazines, essays and interactive timelines and, most intriguingly, digital visualizations appearing every month or so.  Despite this wealth of online activity, important book-length studies continue to appear, the most recent of which is the paperback edition of the first volume of The Oxford Critical History of Modernist Magazines, first published in 2009, and edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, co-founders of the Modernist Magazines Project. Continue reading

Review: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act

William Rothenstein, 'Aliens at Prayer', 1905

William Rothenstein, ‘Aliens at Prayer’, 1905

David Glover, Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
ISBN: 9781107022812

The Edwardian era, as noted in the catalogue to the recent exhibition Edwardian Opulence, witnessed a ‘colossal torrent of political, social, economic, and cultural change’. Though some of these changes were reflected in the visual examples selected for the exhibition – such as John Byam Shaw’s haunting canvas The Boer War (1900) – other issues, such as immigration, were overlooked. Yet it was during the Edwardian period that the first modern law to restrict immigration into Britain was passed. The 1905 Aliens Act was a highly significant event in British history (one contemporary referred to it as a ‘revolution in national policy’), and is the subject of a recent study by the literary scholar, David Glover.

Though the Aliens Act was ostensibly designed to restrict the influx of all ‘undesirable aliens’, regardless of nationality or cultural background, it was in essence a response to a particular crisis: the substantial growth of Jewish immigrants to Britain following the Russian pogroms of the 1880s and early 1900s. In British culture, the so-called ‘alien’, argues Glover, was almost indistinguishable from ‘the Jew’, and the two must be considered together. In this sense, David Glover’s book follows on from several excellent studies of Jewish immigration and its representations, most notably ‘The Jew’ in late-Victorian and Edwardian culture: between the East End and East Africa (Palgrave MacMillan 2009). Continue reading

Review: Elizabeth von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden

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Elizabeth von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden by Isobel Maddison (Ashgate 2013)
ISBN: 9781409411673

Type ‘Victorian Literature’ into Google, noted Simon J. James in his keynote lecture for ‘Beyond the Garden Party’, and you’ll find almost eight-million search results for sites hosting scholarly journals and university-affiliated projects. Try the same thing with ‘Edwardian Literature’ and you’ll get just over a million hits, the first of which is a Facebook page. It has six ‘Likes’.

The perception of Edwardian literature – particularly Edwardian fiction – as a literary backwater seems always to have been with us. As early as 1923 Virginia Woolf was pinpointing the Edwardian era as ‘the fatal age’ in literature, naming and shaming ‘Mr Wells, Mr Galsworthy, and Mr Arnold’ as ‘the culprits’ of this literary demise. Such dismissals have proved surprisingly difficult to shake off, no more so than in the case of female Edwardian novelists (who, tellingly, Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ didn’t even bother to cite). Continue reading

Edwardian Opulence – Catalogue Review

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Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager, ed. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Yale Center for British Art; Yale University Press, 2013).

The last couple of years have witnessed an upsurge of interest in art of the Edwardian era. Recent months have seen a special edition of Visual Culture in Britain dedicated to ‘Edwardian Art and its Legacies’, the launch of the Tate-based Camden Town Group in Context, and the first part of Yale’s Edwardian project, The Edwardian Sense (published in 2010). Now we have Edwardian Opulence, the four-hundred page catalogue to the exhibition currently showing at the Yale Center for British Art, and the culmination of a decade’s research into early twentieth-century British culture.

Long seen, in the wonderful words of Edwardian Opulence curators Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager, as ‘an indolent coda drifting behind the long Victorian era’, the first decade of the twentieth century has struggled for some time to find its own voice, with many commentators holding onto the cliché of the ‘long summer afternoon’ or the ‘country house garden party’. This trope has not been accepted by all: Samuel Hynes, in his 1968 book The Edwardian Turn of Mind, was one of the first to call attention to the darker undercurrents of the age – an idea taken up with gusto in the field of art history by the 1987 exhibition The Edwardian Era. Indeed, it is fair to see both of these as foundational texts to which this current influx of Edwardian surveys owe a large debt. The title – and bold, Boldini cover – of Edwardian Opulence, however, suggests a slight shift in interests. Continue reading

Review: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome

Carolyn W. de la L.Oulton, Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome (Victorian Secrets, Brighton, 2012)

The English writer Jerome K. Jerome is usually remembered for one book: his 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat, which was immensely popular in its day, and continues to spawn countless adaptations and homages. This is no surprise: the book still reads like a handbook for the modern observational comic, with its sharp one-liners about hypochondria, DIY, consumerism and dogs. Despite its meandering, anecdotal tone, the book more than holds its own against competitors, from George Grossmith to P. G. Wodehouse and, later, Nancy Mitford; not least because its perspective is not that of the upper-class twit, or self-important middle-class, but of a proud lower-middle class: a world Jerome K. Jerome knew, and knew better than to patronise. In siding with this class, Jerome risked mockery – Punch referred to him, scathingly, as a ‘cockney pilgrim’, whilst others branded his work ‘vulgar’ – but he also garnered a huge, appreciative audience, becoming a leading figure in what was termed, a little lazily,  ‘The New Humour’. Continue reading

Review: The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey and Life Below Stairs

Instinct invites me to be suspicious of any book with ‘real’ in the title, let alone one that also manages to fit ‘really’ into its sub-title. Such is the case with Pamela Horn’s The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey: How wives & daughters really lived in country house society over a century ago, recently published in hardback by Amberley Press. If one ‘real’ is unfortunate, two seems careless.

There are plenty of other reasons to be suspicious of this book, not least the fact that it is actually a re-printing of a much earlier text, first published in 1991 with the title Ladies of the Manor. Re-printing a book is no crime in itself – especially if it is in demand – though there is something a little cynical about the way this book has been re-branded to cater for a new audience (although, it must be noted, it is by no means alone). If the book had been re-written, or at least edited, to appeal to Downton Abbey fans, it would be a different proposition. Instead, the book has simply be re-titled and printed in a smart hard-back edition. All very handsomely produced, though at £20 many readers might prefer to scour second-hand book stores for old copies of Ladies of the Manor.

This is not, then, a new book by any means, nor is it in any way connected with the TV show Downton Abbey. Continue reading